Springtime Storylines: Have Toronto Blue Jays brought in enough help for Jose Bautista?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Toronto Blue Jays.

The Big Question: Have the Jays brought in enough help for Jose Bautista?

Several times this spring I was asked “can Jose Bautista do it again?”  The “it” being doing something like hitting 40-50 homers and leading the majors in OPS again. My answer has been “well, maybe, but if he has to do that, the Jays are screwed.”

And the thing is, he doesn’t have to do that. He has to be a great slugger in the middle of the lineup, but the plan in Toronto right now depends less on him being an MVP-caliber player again and more on some guys with good track records and/or promise, simply living up to their reputations and/or expectations. I’m talking about the additions from last season in Adam Lind, Kelly Johnson and Colby Rasmus.

Rasmus is two years removed from an .859 OPS season that had him pegged as a future megastar. Lind hit 35 homers three years ago. That same year Johnson hit 26 homers and had an .865 OPS.  While that is probably on the outer edges of Lind and Johnson’s abilities, the point here is that all three of these guys have the potential to be solid — or in Rasmus’ case more than solid — complementary pieces to a Bautista-led lineup.  And that’s before you even get to Brett Lawrie, who we’ll discuss more below.

The point here is that there is a bit of a lightning-in-a-bottle element to the Jays this season, but it’s not comprised of a bunch of unreasonable risks and expectations. In the AL East things always have to break just right. The Jays are counting on that too, but the plan this year seems decidedly less pipe-dreamish than usual. I like the looks of this team.

So what else is going on?

  • Rasmus, Lind and Johnson aside, Brett Lawrie could be the real key here. After his August call-up, he hit .293/.373/.580 with nine homers and seven stolen bases in 43 games. Everyone is talking about Bryce Harper as the brash, powerful young stud about to take over the game. Lawrie is already ahead of him on all of that.
  • The rotation is worrisome. Rickey Romero is coming off his best season and looks like a solid top-of-the-rotation guy. Brandon Morrow is always interesting and, if he can put it together, could be ace-like as well. Beyond that it’s shaky, with Brett Cecil, Dustin McGowan — who, not surprisingly, is hurt — and Henderson Alvarez. I have this feeling that the Jays will be one of those teams who are rumored to be in the market for a starter all season long.
  • Speaking of McGowan, why on Earth did he get a contract extension after missing most of three years? I thought the Jays, coming off of two of the all-time epic salary dumps in the form of Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, would have learned not to do silly things like this. Yes, I know it’s low money, but c’mon.
  • The back of the bullpen looks different. In comes Sergio Santos, who struck out 92 batters in 63 and a third innings last season. He was actually with the Jays during his days as an infielder. Also in comes Darren Oliver who had a fantastic season last year. He never played for the Blue Jays, but he actually pitched in the majors the last time the Jays won the World Series. That’s not quite a Jamie Moyer fact, but it is something.

So how are they gonna do?

If things break right — and it’s a lot of things — they could challenge 90 wins and be in the wild card conversation all year. But I worry about that rotation. Unless it’s upgraded — or unless a couple of guys greatly exceed expectations — this looks to once again be the best fourth place team in baseball.

Phillies’ 6-run ninth tops Cardinals in 6-3 wild-card win

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Stacy Revere/Getty Images
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ST. LOUIS — Philadelphia scored six times in the ninth inning off the stingy St. Louis bullpen, highlighted by a bases-loaded single by Jean Segura, and the Phillies beat the NL Central champion Cardinals 6-3 on Friday in the opening game of their National League wild-card series.

The Cardinals, who were 74-3 on the season when leading after eight innings, were poised to put away another close game after Juan Yepez connected for the first go-ahead pinch-hit homer in franchise history with two outs in the seventh inning.

But after struggling all afternoon against Jose Quintana and the St. Louis bullpen, the Phillies finally got their powerful offense going against Ryan Helsley. JT Realmuto began the ninth-inning rally with a single, and walks for Bryce Harper and Nick Castellanos loaded the bases before the All-Star closer plunked Alec Bohm to score a run.

The Cardinals training staff came out to check on Helsley, who had jammed the middle finger on his pitching hand earlier in the week in Pittsburgh. He tried to throw another warmup pitch but was pulled for Andre Pallante, who gave up Segura’s hit through the right side of the infield that put Philadelphia in front.

Edmundo Sosa added a run when he brazenly scored on Bryson Stott‘s grounder to first base, and Brandon Marsh drove in another run when a tough hop got past Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong.

By the time Kyle Schwarber added a sacrifice fly, Phillies reliever Zach Eflin had plenty of wiggle room in the ninth.

It looked as if Eflin might need it, too, when Nolan Arenado and Dylan Carlson reached base and Nolan Gorman hit a two-out single to right. But Eflin responded by striking Yadier Molina to end the game, leaving Philadelphia a win away from facing NL East champion Atlanta in the divisional round.

There was a sentimental breeze sweeping through Busch Stadium before the game. Ozzie Smith cheerfully walked to the mound to deliver a ceremonial first pitch, and if the flag-waving Cardinals fans packed into every nook and cranny closed their eyes during introductions, they might have thought they were watching a game a generation ago.

After all, some familiar faces were in the lineup from the last time St. Louis and Philadelphia met in the playoffs.

That was 11 years ago to the day Friday, when the Cardinals beat the Phillies in a dramatic pitchers’ duel between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the NL divisional series. Molina and Albert Pujols played for St. Louis that night while erstwhile ace Adam Wainwright, pitching out of the bullpen this series, also was there to celebrate.

Just like that night in Philadelphia, pitching dominated most of Friday’s series opener.

Quintana, who arrived in a deadline trade from Pittsburgh, was masterful for the Cardinals, allowing only a single to Matt Vierling and a double to Bohm while pitching into the sixth. His day was done after fanning Schwarber for the second time on his 75th pitch, handing the game over to a relief corps that had been downright dominant this season.

Zack Wheeler was the equal of Quintana, allowing a leadoff single to Lars Nootbaar and nothing else until Tommy Edman‘s leadoff single in the sixth. Edman was left stranded on third when Paul Goldschmidt grounded out.

Wheeler departed after retiring Arenado to start the seventh. He struck out four and walked one on 96 pitches, his most since Aug. 20, shortly before the right-hander landed on the injured list with forearm tendinitis.

Then it came down to the bullpens, and the Phillies managed to overcome one of the best in the game.

UP NEXT

The Phillies will try for the wild-card sweep on Saturday night when they send right-hander Aaron Nola (11-13, 3.25 ERA) to the mound. He was stellar his last time out against Houston in clinching Philadelphia’s wild-card playoff spot.

The Cardinals will turn to right-hander Miles Mikolas (12-13, 3.29 ERA) to force a decisive Game 3. Mikolas struggled in a tune-up out of the bullpen in Pittsburgh but allowed one earned run over his last two starts.